It's hard to imagine a more cynical marketing ploy than the one Pantheon Books devised for Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's new work, which arrived in bookstores last week. In the transparent hope of stirring up a publicity-grabbing fuss, it gave the book a one-word title that happens to be the most odious racial slur in the English language. The scheme has already produced the desired effect, triggering a string of giddy newspaper articles. Among them: a New York Times profile in which Kennedy's editor, Erroll McDonald, gushed that his motive wasn't to boost sales but to make people "chill and realize the problem is not the word. The venality of racism, that's the problem."
The only appropriate way to reply to remarks like these is "Negro, please," a sanitized version of a phrase some blacks use among themselves when someone is peddling nonsense. The last thing this country needs is a debate about cleaning up the N word and making it respectable. Apart from its crassly commercial title, Kennedy's book is a dry, legalistic account of the myriad ways in which the word has been used since it first appeared in the brutal vocabulary of 18th century slave owners. Given the powerful emotions the term has always stirred, his 226-page account is surprisingly dull.
It's no secret that many blacks either avoid the word entirely or permit its use within their community as a synonym for "soul brother." They bristle when whites use it, even in jest. But, as Kennedy observes, these long-established rules are changing because record and TV companies have discovered that there's gold in racial slurs. Thanks to gangsta rap and the vulgar comic routines of a generation of Richard Pryor wannabes, the N word is blasted onto the airwaves with such mind-numbing frequency that even white people believe they have permission to mimic the way blacks use it.
Such changes in usage have given rise to bizarre incidents, such as one involving the 12-year-old son of one of my closest friends, who asked white sixth-graders at his private school who call one another "my niggah" if they realized that the word was offensive. They would call only other white people that, one of the kids assured him, never a black. They weren't trying to racially insult anyone, just trying to prove that they were down with hip-hop culture.
Here's a modest proposal. As Kennedy notes, the main reason blacks use the N word among themselves is to take away its power to hurt and demean when white people hurl it at them. But when whites try to use it in the ways blacks do, it falls flat because it lacks authenticity. So, instead of copycatting black slang, it would make more sense for white would-be hipsters to demonstrate a little originality by calling themselves slurs that blacks have used to demean white people, such as cracker, honky or ofay. They could even give the epithets a positive spin through creative misspelling, referring to their all-white circle of friends as "my honkeez," "my crackuhs" or "my ofaze." I can already hear some folks moaning "Negro, please," as they read this, but it's no more absurd than using the N word to peddle books.